Polish government plans mega-airport and aerotropolis

The Polish government has approved a plan for a mega-airport and ‘airport city’ on a 3,000 hectare site. An area of farmland has been identified as a suitable location for the project.

On 7th November, the second day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, the Polish government approved a plan to build a new mega-airport, called Poland Central Airport or New Central Polish Airport, handling as many as 100 million passengers per year. The project would result in a a major increase in Poland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Poland, host of the next climate summit, COP24, in December 2018, is already widely regarded as a climate renegade for its continued investment in coal plants, and had the dubious honour of being awarded Fossil of the Day award in Bonn, for its relentless efforts to siphon European Union (EU) funds for clean energy into subsidizing its ageing coal plants. Announcement of a major airport project makes a further mockery of the country’s commitments to address climate change.

The proposed airport site is in Baranów, a rural gmina (administrative district) 40 kilometres to the west of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The map below, commissioned by Polski Fundusz Rozwoju (PFR) in 2008 and included in an article published on 8th October 2017, about a meeting on the airport between representatives of the government and Baranów municipality, shows two areas identified as suitable for the airport project: a 3,421 hectare area to the north of the map and a larger 11,338 hectare area to the south. Another variant of this map was included in a 100 page document discussed at the government meeting  which adopted the airport plan, Poland’s biggest infrastructure project in recent years, on 7th November. At this meeting it was confirmed that the planned location of the airport is the Stanisławów village area, near the southern boundary of the area identified as suitable for the project.

Poland Central Airport
Map commissioned by PFR showing areas suitable for Poland Central Airport

A map produced by GAAM shows the villages within the boundaries of the two areas identified as suitable for the airport project and the existing road and rail links.

PolandAirport

A satellite image of the Stanisławów village area, confirmed as the planned location for the new central airport, shows the villages and small parcels of cultivated land that characterize the wider area.

A mega-airport, multi-modal transportation hub and an aerotropolis

The schedule for the new airport is for preparatory works to be complete by the end of 2019, then for construction to be complete and operations to commence by mid-2027. A mega-airport is planned, one of the largest in the world with four runways, initially serving 45 million passengers per year, rising to 100 million, a passenger throughput as high as the world’s busiest airports, almost as high as Atlanta in the US and higher than the current traffic levels at Dubai Airport and Beijing Capital Airport. A multi-modal transportation hub is planned, integrating the new mega-airport with existing and new road and rail infrastructure. Plans for the airport include a rail station and the project is also referred to as Centralny Port Komunikacyjny (CPK), which translates as Central Communication Port. The proposed airport site is between Warsaw and Łódź, Poland’s third largest city, and a high-speed rail line connecting the two cities is planned. The A2 motorway running between Poland’s western and eastern borders is immediately south of the proposed site. Immediately north of the airport site is the rail line between Berlin and Moscow, via Warsaw,  providing a high-speed service that commenced operations in December 2016.

The 3,000 hectare land area for the new airport is far larger than would be required even if the number of passengers meets the projection of 100 million per annum. A 3,000 hectare site is more than 50 per cent larger than the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta in the US which handles 104 million passengers per year. Atlanta Airport’s site covers 1,900 hectares and encompasses substantial commercial development including more than 200 concession outlets such as retail, food and beverages. The oversized proposed land area for Poland Central Airport could be linked to plans for an ‘airport city‘ or aerotropolis. A 1,200 hectare new city is envisaged, with hotels and showrooms. Under the government resolution outlining plans for the new airport legal and infrastructural changes to Baranów would allow for construction of business parks, conference centres, an exhibition centre and office complexes.

A government financed megaproject

The budget for the airport project, combined with the road and rail infrastructure, is estimated at between €7 – 8 billion. Polish citizens will bear the brunt of the enormous cost of the project; the main investor is the government. The 7th November 2017 resolution announcing construction of the airport approved the financing structure as well as the location. An article in the second 2017 edition of Airport Development News, an industry newsletter published by Airports Council International, stated that two state-owned financial institutions, Polish Development Fund (Polski Fundusz Rozwoju – PFR) and Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (BGK), Poland’s national development bank, would be ‘heavily involved’ in financing the project.

Possibilities for European funding have been considered. The Airport Development News article states that between 75 and 80 per cent of airport construction will be financed by international institutions such as the EIB (European Investment Bank) and EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Such investment by the EIB and EBRD is doubtful as state aid rules preclude allocation of EU funds for construction of the airport. But a June 2017 article published by legal analyst firm Lexology stated that EU funds could be tapped for the road and rail elements of the project. The total cost of the rail infrastructure elements of the megaproject complex is estimated to be between €1.89 billion and €2.1 billion, the total cost of roads and highways between €424,000 and €1.6 billion.

Uncertainty over accessing EU funds has led to attempts to secure financing from Chinese sources. The airport was one of the vast transportation and energy infrastructure projects discussed at the May 2017 Summit of the Belt and Road in China, where the President of China repeated assurances about new credit lines by China Development Bank and China Exim Bank, and one of the outcomes was signing of a contract between Polish and Chinese state railways on facilitating container transport. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution supporting construction of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region, is reported to have expressed an interest in co-financing the Poland Central Airport project, if it is in line with the bank’s policy of promoting ‘interconnectivity’ between continents, which would mean that the airport would have to promote passenger traffic with Asia. Potential benefits to Chinese exporters from the airport are evident. The project would support the Polish government’s intention to establish the country as a port of entry for Chinese goods into the EU single market.

Industry experts doubt feasibility of the new airport

Some industry experts are critical of the new airport, doubtful that a new global hub could compete with established European hub airports such as Schiphol and Frankfurt and saying that it would struggle to meet its traffic projections and fail to make a profit. And adoption of Poland Central Airport as a government priority reverses many years of sloughing huge sums of public money into several new small regional airports. A major new hub airport would compete with these regional airports, many of which are already struggling with low passenger levels and unprofitable. Some industry experts warn that opening a new hub airport would be likely to lead to the closure of several existing Polish airports.

Expenditure on a new airport that results in closure of established regional airports would be an astonishing waste of public funds. Between 2007 and 2015 Poland sank at least US$1.58 billion into building and expanding 14 regional airports, with 40 per cent of this funding coming from the European Union (EU). This was highlighted in a report Flights of fancy: A case study on aviation and EU funds in Poland published in 2012 by CEE Bankwatch Network which critiqued the development and operation of small regional airports which were not financially viable, placing a strain on regional and local government budgets, along with allocation of EU funds for rail connections to airports, arguing it should be redirected to serving mobility needs within regions.

Aviation industry consultancy CAPA (Centre for Aviation) reports that Poland Central Airport would replace Warsaw Chopin Airport, the city’s main airport located south of the city with limited room for expansion. Bloomberg also reports that, under the government plan for the new airport, Warsaw Chopin Airport would eventually be shut down. Closing Warsaw Chopin Airport would be a woeful example of enormous waste of public funds and short-sighted planning. A major, multi-million Euro programme of upgrades to Warsaw Chopin Airport, increasing its capacity to 10.4 million passengers per annum, was completed less than a year ago, in December 2016. The terminal was modernized including installation of new check-in desks and an observation deck, a new long-range fuel pipeline constructed and the runways, taxiways and apron have been upgraded. The airport upgrade programme cost €166,760,000 with the EU Cohesion Fund contributing €32,900,000.

Rafal Milczarski, CEO of Poland’s state-owned carrier, LOT Polish Airlines, has said that Warsaw Chopin Airport should be closed down and the land sold to real estate developers to help finance the new airport. This would certainly benefit LOT, a leading proponent of the central airport. Indeed, supporting growth of the national airline is part of the rationale for the project. But the role of LOT in the new airport is a factor in skepticism regarding its viability. LOT is a relatively small carrier with fewer than ten wide-bodied aircraft. A high level of investment would be required for LOT to become one of Central Europe’s main carriers, one of the goals of the the airport project. Critics are of the opinion that the LOT lacks the scale and financial capacity necessary for commercial viability of the new airport project. LOT Polish Airlines also has a history of government intervention to support ailing finances. The carrier was a direct beneficiary of state funds in 2012-2014 when it was rescued from bankruptcy with a €200 million state bailout.

There are serious doubts over the viability of the Poland Central Airport project. The only certainties are vast public expenditure on infrastructure and loss of a large area of farmland.

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